‘Leave no land uncultivated’: How Bangladesh tries to ward off a food crisis

The government takes up a massive data-gathering and assessment project to determine how unused lands can be made usable for agriculture

Moinul Hoque Chowdhurybdnews24.com
Published : 19 Nov 2022, 08:50 PM
Updated : 19 Nov 2022, 08:50 PM

The projection for next year indicates Bangladesh, like the rest of the world, is staring at a food shortage next year as the conflict in Ukraine is dragging on with no sign of an armistice in sight, which in turn affected the supply chain and raised the prices of essentials across the globe.

The war has severely impacted the export of grains and soybean from Russia and Ukraine, the largest and second-largest countries in Europe respectively that have long been considered as a bread basket for the rest of the world.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself in the last few months spoke publicly about the effects of the global crisis on the Bangladesh economy and repeatedly asked citizens to boost food production by leaving no land uncultivated.

In response to the prime minister’s repeated warning, the Ministry of Agriculture initiated a major programme, which is to find uncultivated lands in every corner of the country and to determine what kind of food and grain can be cultivated on those lands.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina instructed her government to use all available resources so that “every inch of uncultivated lands can be used to grow food to avoid an imminent food shortages”.

  • In the upcoming Boro season, the Ministry of Agriculture expects to find at least 50,000 hectares of uncultivated lands to grow rice.

  • According to a Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics survey for the fiscal year 2019-2020, the country has at least 431,000 hectares of fallow lands, which can be cultivated for agriculture.

  • Of the total uncultivated lands, over 200,000 hectares of lands are associated with homesteads, a 2021 government survey reveals.

  • The government has already been able to make use of at least 4,000 hectares of previously uncultivated lands for agriculture under another project.

Md Abu Zubair Hossain Bablu, a joint secretary to the ministry, said they are focusing more on finding fallow lands to grow rice, the main staple for Bangladeshis.

“We’ve targeted to find at least 50,000 hectares of uncultivated lands, mostly to grow rice in the upcoming Boro season.”

Boro is the dry season for irrigated rice crops planted from December to early February and harvested between April and June.

Badal Chandra Biswas, an additional director of the Field Service Wing at the Department of Agricultural Extension or DAE, an arm of the ministry, said at least 4,000 hectares of uncultivated lands on homesteads have already been brought under cultivation earlier by another project, and the success of the project encouraged the stakeholders to take up the current project.

On the occasion of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth centenary in 2021, DAE undertook a three-year project called 'Pushti Bagan', which is to set up plantations in uncultivated lands in homesteads owned by at least 488,000 families.

Project Director Akram Hossain Chowdhury said 51 percent of the target has already been achieved.

Agriculture Minister Abdur Razzaque himself recently sent out letters to three other ministries for support as his ministry is considering this project as a top priority, said Abu Zubair.

UNCULTIVATED LANDS IN BANGLADESH

According to a Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics survey for the fiscal year 2019-2020, the country has at least 431,000 hectares of fallow lands, which can be cultivated for agriculture.

Of the total uncultivated lands, over 2,00,000 hectares of lands are associated with homesteads, a 2021 government survey reveals.

Officials involved with the ministry’s priority project are not very confident though with the number that came out from the 2021 survey.

A good number of them, while speaking to bdnews24.com, said they are prioritising updating the “real number” first after a thorough survey and then will determine how to use those lands.

Preliminary data gathered by the DAE field offices indicate that swathes of land remain unused and uncultivated in homesteads, hilly and coastal areas, wetlands, and islands. Most of those lands are either disputed lands, or absentee land, meaning owned by the state or publicly-owned enterprises, said Badal Chandra.

“We believe we can spot more lands which can be used for agriculture,” he said.

Absentee land is an economic term that means the owner or leaseholder of a piece of land does not live within the property's local economic region.

Officials at the ministry and the DAE, however, said not all unused and uncultivated can be made usable for agriculture.

They are working as of now to track down the owners to get the necessary permission to make use of the uncultivated lands, which can be prepared for agriculture.

After the data-gathering and mining part is completed, the ministry will get a full picture of district-wise total cultivable land, mono and multi-cropping land, net croplands and total croplands.

Information on plans to increase block-wise crop cultivation and production has been sought. Year-round permanent crop plantation target data for each block in the Upazilas and districts, the amount of uncultivable land throughout the year, reasons for remaining uncultivated and specific crop-wise strategies to increase cultivation and production have also been sought.

MINISTRY’S TOP-PRIORITY PROJECT

The agriculture ministry is considering the programme as a top-priority project.

Joint Secretary Abu Zubair said they are hopeful that the ministry will be able to wrap up the data-gathering process soon and determine what issues need to be addressed before making them arable.

“There’s a projection of food shortage next year as a result of geopolitical issues. Though Bangladesh is self-sufficient in food production, we want to make sure the country has a surplus food stock, if we are affected by the crisis after all,” he said.

DAE’S 10 COMMANDMENTS

DAE’s Badal Chandra said his department has set 108 strategies to achieve the target of bringing uncultivated lands under cultivation.

They are:

  • Identifying homesteads, banks of ponds and canal and surrounding shaded damp lands for fruits and vegetables.

  • Hilly areas for fruits and vegetables.

  • Increasing the use of pumps for irrigation for high-yielding varieties of crops in Sylhet and coastal areas.

  • Common monocropping in wetlands or Haor zone, which includes pumpkin, courgette, cucumber, groundnut, potato, sunflower, mustard, corn, onion, garlic, chilli, musk and wheat.

  • Finding the owner of absentee lands and bringing their land under cultivation by leasing out.

  • Monocropping by using machines in submerged lowlands.

  • Bringing unused lands owned by sugar mills, cantonments, jute mills, schools, colleges, and offices under cultivation.

  • Expanding nut, pumpkin and spice plantations in shoals.

  • Farming vegetables and spices by using floating agriculture technology on low-lying marshlands.

  • Involving local administrations to resolve disputes over contentious lands.

Joint Secretary Abu Zubair said several issues, such as irrigation, additional fertiliser, seeds, waterlogging, need to be addressed before making uncultivated lands usable.

‘NO PRIVATELY OWNED LANDS TO BE MADE EMINENT DOMAIN’

The government recently reassured landowners and farmers that no pieces of land will be made eminent domain if they failed to produce crops or leave it barren as some recent media reports suggested.

The top civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Khandkar Anwarul Islam last week dismissed such notions as “rumours” and said the government has no interest in acquiring lands as a form of punishment for not cultivating.

“The government has different protocols of making a piece of land Khas (eminent domain). If the government needs to acquire any piece of land, it will follow those protocols,” he said.

[Writing in English by Adil Mahmood]

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher